No matter how suspect the Yomiuri Giants’ starting pitching has been in the past, a powerhouse offense has always been there to bail them out.
So far this year, be it the new ball or early-season jitters, that advantage is being nullified. Which has left manager Tatsunori Hara scrambling for answers.
In past years the Giants’ squad has looked like a barnstorming troupe of All-Stars, crushing home runs and collecting pennants in three of the past four seasons.
This year, with a team batting average of .232, the opening act isn’t following the usual script.
Michihiro Ogasawara’s startlingly sluggish beginning has robbed the team of one of the most consistent hitters in Japan.
Hayato Sakamoto, Rusty Ryal, Ryota Wakiya and Yoshitomo Tani have have also struggled.
While it hasn’t been all bad news ~~~- Alex Ramirez and Hisayoshi Chono have been great — the Giants’ lineup has been littered with holes for the past month.
Some of that can be traced to the loss of Shinnosuke Abe to injury during the spring. Abe has yet to make his season debut, but is on track to return Tuesday.
Hara seemed to reach wits end last week, going public with criticisms of Ogasawara and shuffling the top of the batting order, by plugging Ogasawara into the leadoff spot and shifting Sakamoto to third in the order.
While Ogasawara was injured on May 13, Sakamoto has taken to his new role nicely, even going 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in a win against the Hiroshima Carp on Sunday.
“I’m just going to continue doing the best I can without worrying about the batting order,” Sakamoto said after the game.
At the moment, the Giants’ starting rotation is a liability, especially in a league where the Tokyo Yakult Swallows are much improved and the Carp look like they’ll hang around until at least the middle of the summer if not longer.
That means the Yomiuri offense needs to find it’s groove.
So Hara has to make the right moves and utilize the talent he’s got. Stroking egos is easy when wins are piling up, but the normally superhuman Kyojin are suffering through a bout of mortality and when heads begin to roll the manager’s is usually the first.
If their funk stretches into the summer months, things will have to change, and shuffling a lineup where only Ramirez’s and Chono’s spots should be safe.
There are options to turn to on the bench in Kenji Yano, a good young player, who can provide a spark and Yoshiyuki Kamei, who can play on the corners or in the outfield.
Hara, so far, seems content to stick with the tried and true despite the struggles and has trotted out a litany of unknown pinch hitters in key spots (to varying success) when Yano, Yoshitomo Tani and others have languished in the dugout.
The pitching staff has shown nothing to suggest it can keep the team afloat the way the Chunichi Dragons and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters staffs often do for their squads.
So the Giants have to hit and hit often and help their starters get the game into the hands of a capable bullpen.
Yes Opening Day was just a month ago, but in a Central League that for the moment looks more competitive than ever, losses in the first two months of the season really come back to haunt you in the last two months.
It may be early, but for Hara the pressure is on.